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For Tony nominee Leigh Silverman, directing the production at the heart of the Public Theater’s Women of the Public gala felt like a homecoming. “I saw so many incredible plays at the Public as a fan,” she told Variety before the performance at the Delacorate Theater on Monday night. She vividly recalls seeing Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss” in 1998, first as an usher and twice more as an audience member. “I just sat there feeling like, ‘If all I ever do is give programs out here, that will be fine, because I love it so much.’ But when you think about a life in New York, all you can think about is working at the Public Theater.”

That dream came true in 2004, when Lisa Kron’s “Well” premiered on the Martinson stage with Silverman at the helm. And the relationship has only deepened in the years since; with seven shows there under her belt and three more in development, “It’s become a real artistic home for me,” Silverman said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks feels the same way. When asked what the Public meant to her, she pointed to a bird’s nest in the rafters of the Delacorte. “That’s like me. I’m like, ‘This is my nest,’” she said, laughing. “When I think of the Public Theater, I think of home. I’ve been doing plays there since 1994 – and I’ve been to a lot of wonderful theaters around the world, but I feel like this is my spot. They’ve supported me through all kinds of different artistic expressions.”

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The women who came before her – and eventually worked alongside her – were key to that sense of freedom and possibility. “Gail Papp is the First Woman of the Public Theater to my mind,” Parks said, citing Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy and Jo Bonney as similarly instrumental. “I’m just following in the footsteps!”

Artistic director Oskar Eustis also paid tribute to Papp as a pioneer. “Gail Papp is the keeper of the flame in terms of the values of the place,” he told Variety. “She founded the Literary Department and the New Work Department. She was the first dramaturg that we had here, and she’s still on the board serving actively. She’s been the spirit of this organization since 1965.”

While her story is a remarkable one, Papp is just one of the many women who’ve been integral to the institution throughout its history – and as Eustis noted later in the evening, the theater’s ethos reflects that. “We’re celebrating the women of the Public tonight, but every day of the year is the day of the woman at the Public Theater. Women are indispensable to everything we do. I’m keeping this chair warm for a woman who will succeed me!” he added, laughing. “It’s not something confined to one night — it’s something we all know is our lifelong task.”

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